You’re Dead!was such a momentous piece of work, and such an inflection point inFlying Lotus’ career, that his earlier albums can now sound conventional by comparison. They were original and daring, but remained planted in soil tilled by pioneers likeDillaandMadlib.You’re Dead!offered a different vision: ecstatic, shapeshifting, deeply collaborative, and with a remarkable ability to mask its making. Where most beat music foregrounds surfaces and processes—the fingerprints on the pads of the MPC, the dust in the grooves of the wax—the 2014 album flowed like magical liquid with no discernable source. Where beat music is grounded,You’re Dead!was pure vapor, a lungful of atoms returned swirling into the universe.
You’re Dead!was an album about mortality, one colored by the passing of friends, peers, and family members; it reflected the increasingly cosmic scope of Steven Ellison’s work as Flying Lotus, in which spiritual jazz could exist side by side withsick jokes, the sublime with the ridiculous, fanciful, and ribald. This time, on his sixth album, there is no explicit theme; the through line holdingFlamagratogether seems to be the creative process itself. Ellison spent the past five years working on the album; 10 tracks swelled to more than two dozen. For a while, it was envisioned as a collection of just beats, no jazz. The jazz eventually wormed its way back in, thanks to longtime collaborators like keyboardists Brandon Coleman, Dennis Hamm, and Taylor Graves; multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson; and, especially, bassist Stephen Bruner, better known asThundercat, a key member of the Brainfeeder brain trust and a co-writer of the majority of these songs. The album’s guiding metaphor was a flame on a hill. “Then I went to this party and heardDavid Lynchsaying the words that he wound up saying on the record,” Ellison says. “And I was like, ‘That’s it, we’re just going to go in that direction.’”
For all the clarity that the image of a flame on a hill might suggest, there is a lot of murk and confusion. There’s a lot ofeverything; fortunately, that goes both ways. There are bouts of thick, gloopy overload but also instances of crystalline focus; there are serpentine jazz-funk rave-ups and moments of profound stillness. In keeping with a lot of beat music, many of these tracks are relatively short. The abundance of minute-and-a-half miniatures means that, for all the viscous density of the stacked keyboards, and all the nervous momentum of Thundercat’s agile fretwork, there’s plenty of room to breathe. On a sensory level the music sounds incredible, crafted with a technical dexterity that only accentuates its vast dimension.
Sweeping, prismatic jazz-funk predominates, but there is no shortage of surprises. The 89-second “Andromeda,” a co-write with Thundercat, sounds like Flying Lotus’ take onRadiohead’s version of post-rock. “Say Something,” even shorter, might beTom Waitssoundtracking a Wes Anderson film. “Pygmy,” a late-album highlight, drizzles Thundercat’s high-necked bass melody over rainforest samples and a beat that swishes like a rushing river; it’s as moving as it is simple.
The album feels, above all, like a sketchbook—synths from “Takashi,” a funk-lite tune built from Jackson Pollack-like layers of spattered keys, turn up 11 tracks later on “Debbie Is Depressed,” and their recurrence is more than simple déjà vu; it’s a peek into Ellison’s hard drive, a glimpse at the way ideas from a given session are carried into new contexts. Some of the record’s most sketch-like pieces are its most rewarding: Consider “Pilgrim Side Eye,” a cartoonishly swaggering funk miniature that flips, in its final seconds, into gorgeous, sighing chords, soft as baby’s breath. The song, an instrumental, is over in 91 seconds; jazz greatHerbie Hancockis in there somewhere, scampering around within the antic changes, but the horizon is egoless. All virtuosity is channeled back into the spirit of group interplay.
Tierra Whackpulls off the most striking star turn, on “Yellow Baby,” the album’s sparsest track—just a spindly, ramshackle beat, all errant claps and snares, underpinning the Philadelphia rapper’s wild gyrations. Ellison builds the barest of scaffolding for her to dangle from, and she makes the most of this rickety playground, sounding giddy as she lags dangerously behind the beat. Flying Lotus is known as a maximalist, but here he shows how much he can do with simple materials, especially when paired with the right partner.
Even in two- and three-minute doses, 67 minutes of this stuff is a lot. A handful of tracks could probably have been set aside for a separate EP or a deluxe edition of the album. And for all the bold-print clout of the assembled guests—Solange,George Clinton,Toro y Moi,Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano—one wishes for more standout songs on par withYou’re Dead!’s “Never Catch Me,” featuringKendrick Lamar. Ellison comes closest on “More,” featuringAnderson .Paakat his raspy, declamatory best. The hook is an expression of existential yearning boiled down to its essence: “There’s gotta be more to life than myself… Gotta be somethin’ more that I can’t tell.”
It’s here that the album comes closest to the big-picture soul-searching ofYou’re Dead!But even when he sets his sights on closer targets, it’s clear that Flying Lotus is a rare talent with enviable range, more next-level bandleader than mere beatmaker. No wonder that David Lynch gets a surrealistic spoken-word solo at the dead center of the album: The shock-headed director’s self-contained universes are an obvious influence on Ellison’s own art. True,Flamagramay not comprise nearly as elaborate a world as those that Lynch conjures, and it doesn’t push Ellison’s art forward in the same way thatYou’re Dead!did. But the afterlife is a hard act to follow, and in the light of that flame on the hill,Flamagramakes for an engaging way station